China and Incommensurability

January 06, 2022

I’ve never really understood China, so I’m reading a book about China. It’s called The Hundred Year Marathon and it’s opened my eyes to quite a lot so far. In particular, it’s clear that I’ve never really understood Chinese central planning. My naive impression has been that China opened it’s doors sometime a few decades ago and let the capitalist party in under Deng, that they’ve been moving down this path and developing for a long time, but that it’s still a single party system with a ruling Politburo that can pull all sorts of evil or unforeseen shenanigans like putting billionaires under house arrest or taking over Hong Kong or persecuting the Uyghurs endlessly or making Bitcoin illegal. My chyron would be: Communist Bad Actor Keeps On Central Planning. Right, there’s a reason I don’t write chyrons.

I’ve learned more now and I’ve come to two startling conclusions: one about China and one about.. well, language I guess.

First, China. I’ve learned more now about the opening of China onto the global scene. I thought Deng’s famous quote was “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” but that was a pattern-seeking substitution in my head. How he actually described his economic reform program was “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Key difference there. My naivety about economics led me to make free markets and capitalism synonymous, also a mistake. China is neomercantilist; they’re designing and planning their economic movements around their national goals. For example, their enormous global move towards manufacturing was an exceptionally powerful labor arbitrage that helped drive their economy forward. They exploited a key strength to level up: manpower.

China moves and thinks in different ways and on different timescales than we do. The global labor arbitrage they’ve executed to produce a thriving middle class and manufacturing sector is just one example. Five years from now, I think we’ll look back at their ban on Bitcoin as an early move pointing to the value they place on their upcoming CBDC. Which also may be their grand, sly solution to credit and central banking problems.

China moves and thinks in different ways and on different timescales than we do. My naive western view has been to chalk this up to central planning in the vein of the evil and disastrous 20th century communism I know. But I’m much less sure of that now, which brings me back to the book that I’m reading. The author, Michael Pillsbury, is fluent in Mandarin. He points out that there aren’t enough U.S. policy advisors fluent in Mandarin and he spends a considerable amount of the book trying to explain Mandarin phrasing, ambiguity, and concepts and ancient Chinese history. In particular, he looks back to the Warring States period - mostly because many of the modern Chinese geopolitical strategy doctrines… actually come from way back then. And most have never been translated into English.

Which brings me to the much scarier point about language. Pillsbury spends pages and pages trying to articulate and describe the Chinese concept of shi. It seems to be some combination of strategy, The Force (as in Star Wars, seriously), and the shaping of opportunity. Even in a few pages of text, it’s not well translatable into English; you can sort of see the shape if you squint, but you can’t look straight on. Shi plays a central role in Pillsbury’s analysis of Chinese actions and strategies over the last 50 years. It’s made me question my idea that China is centrally planned. They are, but not with a structure I can think about easily.

Which is the scary problem. The way China thinks is different enough from my own Western, English world view that I can’t understand it. In linguistics, this is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; the idea that language affects a speaker’s worldview. In science, it’s called incommensurability, where conceptual frameworks are so different that two theories cannot be well compared.

I have long been a skeptic on Sapir-Whorf. The universe is full of wonder and delight, surely there is a language equivalent of Turing-completeness that allows a speaker of that complete language to approach any concept. This book on geopolitics, aside from rethinking my view on China, has forced me to reform my skepticism. I think in English. I have to believe now that there are ideas and concepts that I will always struggle to understand or approach because of the formulation and structure of my English thought, and other languages are no different.

There is an equivalent here in math, which the idea of commensurability points us towards. To approach certain subjects, a branch of math is often required. You can’t properly understand dynamic systems without differential equations, and you can’t properly understand quantum theory without topology, Hilbert spaces, algebraic theory and probably a lot more. I listened to a lecture on the Holographic Principle by Leonard Susskind awhile back, and I remember being both floored and frustrated because I didn’t have the math to wrap my head around the concepts. Physics is the only scientific field I can imagine getting an advanced degree in because I don’t currently have the abstractions or concepts to properly model some parts of reality.

Shi Planning

I don’t think of China as centrally planned any more. That view seems unexamined and tied to the context of 20th century communist ideology. To be clear, China is definitely still planning. But the nature of their thought is more deceptive, long term, and just plain different than ours. Here’s another quote of Deng’s:

“Planning and market forces are not the essential difference between socialism and capitalism. A planned economy is not the definition of socialism, because there is planning under capitalism; the market economy happens under socialism, too. Planning and market forces are both ways of controlling economic activity”

There’s a comfort here in not defining things too closely, in allowing ambiguity. That’s a fascinating trait in a large single party communist country. The world continues to build incredible technology in the 21st century including huge new amounts of compute power and new and untested powers of Artificial Intelligence. The United States, and all of us, need to wonder more about the Uyghurs and the mass migration of Han Chinese to Tibet and Xinjiang, or what’s next for Taiwan, or their CBDC strategy, or whether China will try to tackle the economic calculation problem in a new and different way. Learning about shi has changed how I think about central planning. It’s reformed my engrained Western view that all roads lead towards democracy, freedom, and markets. This makes me more concerned about China’s worldview, and its promulgation more widely, than I am directly about China itself.

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